MISSOULA, Mont. — Ruling that records of college students have a heightened level of privacy protection, the Montana Supreme Court on Monday rejected the wholesale public release of disciplinary records related to a former University of Montana quarterback who had been accused of rape.
The court ruled that the records sought by “Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer be reviewed confidentially by a lower court judge to determine if any should be released publicly.
Krakauer wanted to know why the Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian vacated campus decisions to expel the quarterback, who was later acquitted of rape.
Before the case went to state court, it went through the university’s disciplinary process, which concluded the rape most likely occurred and the quarterback should be expelled.
Krakauer sought the records for his book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” which was released in April 2015.
The Montana University System argued against releasing the documents, saying the action would violate student privacy and an education law that could threaten the University of Montana’s federal funding. Attorneys for the system said the documents’ release also may prevent future students from testifying in disciplinary proceedings for fear their identities could be made public.
In response to Monday’s order, Krakauer told The Associated Press by email that he was optimistic the high court opinion “provides a clear course” for a state District Judge Kathleen Seeley to release the records he’s seeking without violating Montana privacy laws or federal student privacy laws.
Seeley, of Helena, had earlier ruled for Krakauer after finding the federal education law threatens to withhold funding only if there is a systemic release of confidential information. A one-time release of information with the names of the students blacked out would not go against the federal law, she said.
In a 6-1 ruling Monday written by Justice Jim Rice, the state Supreme Court said that while the lower court had correctly ruled Krakauer’s request fell under the right to know laws in Montana, the student’s education records have a heightened level of privacy protection.
Justices also said that any documents containing protected information that Seeley decides to release will require advance notice to the affected students or parents.
Krakauer had said previously that he hoped his case would stop universities from using student privacy law to withhold documents that could shed light on how they deal with student sexual assaults.